Friday, October 02, 2015

Mysteries for Kids, Fresh, New, Exciting (Shelley Tougas, Kekla Magoon)

Have you noticed who talks about the Nancy Drew books? Yes, I'm afraid so -- it's the 50+ crowd. It's not the kids, except for the ones who are reading "retro." And don't even ask about the Bobbsey Twins. The Hardy Boys? Those are on those cute mugs and T-shirts you can buy online for older co-workers.

But there are fresh new mysteries this season that are so good, there's no need to mourn the old character series. And adult readers have the fun of purchasing these "for the kids" and indulging in going cover to cover themselves, rapidly, before wrapping the gifts.

Take FINDERS KEEPERS by Shelley Tougas, for starters. This is a "middle grades" mystery -- the protagonists are ages 10 and 11, and kids usually "read ahead" by at least a year, so 9-year-olds are headed for this book. Tougas, a Wisconsin author, knows her age range well, and spins an adventure that has to do with the family summer cabin being put up for sale in the tough economy, so that Christa is facing the horrible possibility of no trees to climb, no lake to swim in -- and an endless series of summer crafts workshops that her teacher parents will sign her up for. Ugh!

Christa's biggest talent is her imagination. She can turn create a gold-panning adventure out of simple kitchen tools and a few other items, and new neighbor Alex Clark, just a year older, has parallel skills. But it's Alex's grumpy Grandpa -- soon to be the official "babysitter" for Christa, too -- who provides the real excitement, because his mother (long ago) might have held -- and hidden! -- a treasure trove of cash belonging to gangster Al Capone.

Tougas nimbly escorts the kids through figuring out who Capone was and why his money would be scary. If you find it, can you keep it -- to rescue your family's summer? Or is it cursed and would it ruin your life? Who else is looking for it? Escapades multiply, and even adults helping younger kids read this will be surprised by some of the twists and turns. It's fun! (Check the author website for her other middle-grades mystery, too.)

Closer to adult level in terms of ethical choices and dangers is SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD by Kekla Magoon. This is the first "Robyn Hoodlum Adventure" and it's a doozy. Robyn, with her light-brown skin and braided kinky hair, fits in well in her neighborhood of Nott City, where her parents are important politically, and of "opposite" heritage -- one dark, one light. But when the greedy governor of the region sends his henchmen (henchwomen?) to lock up all the people capable of resisting him, Robyn escapes the net and connects with the rebels of nearby Sherwood.

Adult readers, and many younger ones, will realize right away that this is a play on the old tale of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but the path that our Robyn takes out of her comfortable life and into exile -- most wanted fugitive! -- is unexpected and suspenseful. Plus there's a generous dash of mythology involved, with the "old" myths of the moon having some influence on what's open to Robyn -- and to how she'll manage without her parents.

A few times, I felt like Magoon missed a moment when things could have been tougher or sadder; Robyn's new friends call her "mean" a couple of times, with reason, and I would have liked to see Robyn struggle and grow more around that issue. (I'm a fan of Peter Abraham's insistence that the author's job is to make things harder on the protagonist.) But by dodging that kind of pain, Magoon keeps the story at a more general level, far removed from the risks and losses of, say, The Hunger Games trilogy. Wise older people lend a hand to Robyn and her allies; youngsters come around to her side instead of betraying her; and there's a minister in training named Tucker (yes, as in Friar Tuck!) who creates a safety zone for the vulnerable child rebels.

I couldn't put it down -- the page count, admittedly with large type, short chapters, and plenty of white space, is 355, but the action is swift, the characters need hugs (and make do with an arm around each other's shoulders), and there are no distractions from the brisk forward motion. At the adult level, this would have been classified as a thriller, and thus would be in the mystery field -- for kids, though, it's more of an adventure type. The ending signals "series" very clearly. Robyn has a lot more to achieve! But the skills and insight that she's gained by the end of this very good book are going to serve her well in the missions that clearly lie ahead of her. It's going to be really, really hard to wait for the sequel! Author website here -- but as of this review date, not yet updated to SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD.

I plan to pick up multiple copies of this one. It will be a holiday gift for a couple of kids, but maybe even more highly valued by the several adults I know who are watching for the best in kids' books. No, I don't consider this YA (young adult), even though there's social chaos, political maneuvering, and such ... the issues are ethical and passionate but, at least in this first volume of the series, not heartbreaking, and there's no physical attraction to deal with between the characters. Safe to give it to that rapid-reader 9- or 10-year-old whom you appreciate; those over 13 may curl their lip at this ("too young a book!") but will enjoy sneaking into its pages anyway. Just don't tell them you noticed what they decided to read after all.

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